A new study estimates fewer than half of developing countries are likely to reach the Millennium Development Goal to reduce child hunger. It says about 110 million children worldwide are moderately or severely underweight, while nearly 150 million others are mildly underweight.
The study is based on an analysis of many national surveys and other research going back decades.
“We are aware that children’s nutritional status is quite important for their overall health and mortality," said Professor Majid Ezzati of Imperial College London, who led the effort. "In some sense it’s arguably the very best single indicator of how well-nourished children are holistically. So we wanted to see what has happened in all the countries in the world over the past few decades. We collected all of the available data that we could to look at these trends and to see who is doing well and who is not doing as well in terms of improving children’s nutrition.”
The study also included researchers from the World Health Organization and U.S. universities.
Ezzati said children’s nutritional status can vary greatly by region.
"There have been incredible improvements in Asia and Latin America, especially. And much of the southern part of Latin America and much of East and Southeast Asia have managed to get malnutrition to very low levels. South Asia has done quite well in terms of trends, but it started off so badly that it still needs to do a lot more," he said.
And then there’s sub-Saharan Africa.
"Things unfortunately actually seem to have gotten worse in many of the countries for well over a decade before getting better slowly. So in some sense sub-Saharan Africa is not much further now than it was two and a half decades ago in terms of children’s nutrition. Some countries have done well, but overall the continent hasn’t done as well," he said.
Professor Ezzati said it’s difficult to know precisely why sub-Saharan Africa has lagged in progress. But there are clues.
"One should strongly suspect that there was a role for a series of policies that were happening in the late 80s and early part of [the] 1990s in relation to trade liberalization – in relation to actually reducing government spending and aid spending on things like agriculture, overall nutrition, overall distribution of food and health services to the poorest households," he said.
He said 61 of the 141 developing countries analyzed have a greater than 50 percent chance of reaching the 2015 goal on reducing child hunger.
"But," he said, "this means that the other 80 countries have less than a 50 percent chance. They can make it if things go really well for the next three or four years, but they won’t otherwise."
Among the countries doing very well are Chile and China. Even in sub-Saharan Africa there are some standouts, including Ghana, Angola and Botswana.
Researchers generally use height and weight measurements to determine children’s nutritional status. There can be long-term consequences for kids who are malnourished or undernourished.
Ezzati said, "There are studies that have actually found that children who were undernourished early in life do worse in school. And then increasingly we are learning it may actually even affect the chronic diseases later in life. They may have a higher risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease – very long-term effects on every aspect of their life."
Ezzati said the Millennium Development Goals helped create motivation to solve child hunger and other issues. He added there’s evidence that "child nutrition is best improved through equitable economic growth, investment in smallholder farms, primary health care and programs targeted at the poor."